School Segregation, An Ever-Present Problem Across America

In the public mind, misconceptions about residential and school segregation abound. Despite what many believe, the Civil Rights Movement did not end school segregation. And neither is segregation today primarily a problem of the South. The 1974 Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley, the case set in metropolitan Detroit, undid much of the impact of Brown v. Board of Education by banning busing across school district jurisdictional lines. Whites simply moved to the suburbs, which maintained racial segregation through all sorts of economic measures like zoning out public housing and mandating lot sizes so large that poor people could not afford to build there.

Here is historian Thomas Sugrue from his giant 2008 history, Sweet Land of Liberty: “At the opening of the twenty-first century, the fifteen most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States were in the Northeast and Midwest. A half century after the Supreme Court struck down separate, unequal schools as unconstitutional, racial segregation is still the norm in northern public schools. The five states with the highest rates of school segregation—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California—are all outside the South. Rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty reach Third World levels among African Americans in nearly every major northern city….” (p. xix)  “The stark disparities between blacks and whites by every measure—economic attainment, health, education, and employment—are the results.  The high degree of separation by race reinforces and hardens perceptions of racial difference. It creates racially homogeneous public institutions that are geographically defined, limits the access of many minorities to employment opportunities, and leads to racial polarization in politics. Residential segregation has led to a concentration of poverty in urban areas…. (p. 540)

But what about the South, where school districts are more likely to be county-wide and where the courts and the federal Department of Justice enforced the eradication of what was known as de jure segregation—segregation that was explicitly defined by Jim Crow laws?  Two fine articles published this week explore the ongoing resegregation of schools in metropolitan Birmingham, Alabama, where a white enclave is seceding from the Jefferson County school district. Emmanuel Felton’s The Department of Justice is Overseeing the Resegregation of American Schools, published jointly by the Hechinger Report and The Nation, and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ NY Times Magazine report, The Resegregation of Jefferson County: What One Alabama Town’s Attempt to Secede from Its School District Tells Us About the Fragile Progress of Racial Integration in America, examine an effort by white parents to remake Gardendale, Alabama’s public schools into a small, largely white school district.

Hannah Jones explains that Gardendale’s parents were very savvy in the way the proceeded. They formed an advocacy group for secession—Focus—Future of Our Community Utilizing Schools.  Then they waited until the Jefferson County Schools passed a bond issue and rebuilt Gardendale High School into a state of the art facility before they made their move to break away: “In Alabama, any town of more than 5,000 residents can vote to form its own school system, and over they years, members of Focus watched covetously as the neighboring white communities did just that. Gardendale, too, had considered secession for two decades but was deterred when feasibility studies showed that the town of nearly 14,000 could not support an independent school system, partly because the tax base could not generate enough revenue to replace its old and sagging high school. Gardendale lobbied Jefferson County to build a new multimillion-dollar high school, which opened in 2010, within the town’s limits.”

Felton describes the protests of white parents, who claimed in court that their proposed secession from Jefferson County Schools had nothing to do with race: “‘The media has twisted and turned this issue to make everyone think this is about race,’ said Chris Orazine, a white Gardendale dad. ‘The people who live in this community and love this community know that nothing is further from the truth.’… Speaker after speaker complained about how the city had been portrayed. This wasn’t about race, they insisted, but about doing what was best for ‘our’ children.”

Considering that Jefferson County is still under a federal court order to eliminate segregation, how can Gardendale be openly attempting to resegregate?  Hannah-Jones explains: “It was, to a large degree, the geographic organization of Southern states that made court-ordered school desegregation there successful. Unlike the North, where metropolitan areas often include several independent school systems, the South tended toward single, countywide school systems that served cities, suburbs and rural areas.  That meant that judges could order school desegregation across municipal borders and between black and white towns, and thus most white families seeking to avoid desegregation in the South could not simply pick up and move across an invisible line to a white community with a white public-school system… Or, in Alabama, they could leave.  In reaction to the Brown ruling, Alabama passed its school secession law, and in 1959, Mountain Brook, an all-white, wealthy Birmingham suburb, withdrew from the Jefferson County school district.”  Other school districts stayed in the county system until 1969, when a lawsuit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund forced the rezoning of the county schools under court order.

“(W)hat makes the Jefferson County case unique,” writes Felton, “is the federal government’s power to stop it…. That’s because Jefferson County is one of just 176 school districts, out of the 13,500 across the nation, that are still under federal oversight to make sure they’re keeping their promise to fully eliminate all vestiges of Jim Crow.  Yet six decades after Brown, federal judges and officials rarely check to see if districts are obeying their orders to desegregate—and in many cases, schools in districts with a history of discrimination against black children have actually grown more segregated under federal supervision.  And when the judges do step in, they’ve often sided with the districts where school segregation is getting worse.”  Felton describes the Department of Justice as lax in enforcement—“While Obama’s Justice Department racked up wins in dozens of cases, including a high-profile case in Cleveland, Mississippi, officials in many districts with segregated schools report that they hadn’t heard from either the Justice Department or the courts during Obama’s tenure. Many of the 176 outstanding cases have been in a state of suspended animation for years, if not decades.”

In April, federal judge, Madeline Hughes Haikala, an Obama appointee, allowed Gardendale to secede despite that her decision named race as among the reasons white parents had sought a separate district. Felton writes: “In April, she ruled that Gardendale could break away.”  But her decision was slightly nuanced: “Gardendale would start with two elementary schools and would have to work in ‘good faith’ to earn the middle and high schools.”

Hannah-Jones describes Haikala’s requirements for Gardendale to act in “good faith”: “Haikala had, despite her finding of intentional discrimination, decided to give Gardendale ownership over the county’s two elementary schools located in Gardendale for the coming school year. In order to do so, she required the appointment of a black school-board member and for Gardendale to work with the plaintiffs and the Justice Department to come up with a desegregation plan to govern the new district. Gardendale would also either have to relinquish the high school that Jefferson County residents had paid for and that served students from several other communities or repay the county $33 million for the school. After doing that and then operating the two schools ‘in good faith’ for three years, Haikala said she would reconsider their motion for a full separation.”

Hannah-Jones concludes: “What the Gardendale case demonstrates with unusual clarity is that changes in the law have not changed the hearts of many white Americans.”  These articles—Felton’s  and Hannah-Jones’—are worth reading together. They are a sobering update on America’s long struggle with racism and the unresolved and very current issue of school segregation which is always accompanied by educational inequity. Quality education is supposed to be a right for all of our children, but we are a long way from having achieved justice.

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St. Louis Public Schools: A Microcosm of the Destruction of Big City Public Education in America

Jeff Bryant’s history (published in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column) of public schooling in St. Louis—including desegregation and the recent decades of corporate school reform—is a fascinating reminder that recent decades of anti-public, pro-corporate school reform doctrine was a much broader phenomenon than Bloomberg’s small school/charter experiment in New York City or the work of Betsy and Dick DeVos and their friends in Detroit. Although the local details differ, Bryant’s tale of St. Louis is also the story of Cleveland and Milwaukee and Philadelphia. While today we have been indoctrinated by proponents of a test-driven, high stakes testing regime to regard education in our poorest, most segregated big cities as “failing,” these school districts historically modeled society’s commitment to provide children with the best kind of education. Then racism and white flight intensified racial and economic segregation. Ideologues prescribed experimentation with privatization as the cure, but it hasn’t worked.

Well into his report, Bryant describes the years when I first became aware of something awry in St. Louis.  Suddenly in 2003, Alvarez & Marsal, a corporate “turnaround” firm was hired to run the school district. William Roberti, formerly the CEO of Brooks Brothers, was made acting superintendent.  Alvarez & Marsal set about closing public schools and expanding charters. Here is Bryant: “None of these outsiders had any education expertise… Roberti and his associates were intent on outsourcing school services and attacking ‘cost centers’ in the district.  Roberti outsourced the district’s school lunch program, computer education program, and building maintenance to private firms. He cut funds to the district’s special education services, curriculum development staff, teacher professional development programs, school counselors and social workers, and the district’s school buildings oversight… By 2004, at the end of Roberti’s temporary tenure, St. Louis had closed 21 schools and laid off over 1,000 employees.” And “financial problems the turnover artists never truly solved became the primary excuse for the state to take over the district in 2007, install an appointed school board, and strip the district of its accreditation.”

Bryant begins his story in 1897 with the district’s employing architect William Ittner to design and oversee the construction of new schools. Each had “a broad green lawn across the front, an impressive brick facade, and high arching windows to light the interior…The open plan used E-, U-, or H-shaped floor layouts and flanks of windows to allow sunlight to fill common areas and classrooms.  The designs emphasized large, open classrooms where teachers had more flexibility to arrange learning activities.  Students moved through sunlit hallways from classrooms to libraries and specialty rooms for art and music… Ittner designed 50 schools in St. Louis—48 are still standing….”  Many are now abandoned and in ruins.

But, Bryant reports, race has been an issue in the city, and the fate of the public schools today was cemented after WWII, with rampant white flight to 80 suburbs in the 1950s—90 suburbs today.  Bryant cites Richard Rothstein’s work, drawing “a direct line from residential housing policies made by the federal government to the isolation of low-income black children in American cities, including St. Louis…. By segregating housing and education, St. Louis’s civic leadership doomed many of the district’s schools to chronic low academic performance, Rothstein argues. Schools with high proportions of disadvantaged children, he writes, often have fewer and less-experienced teachers, higher concentrations of students whose learning is often impeded by the stress of poverty….”

Like other midwestern cities, St. Louis also experienced economic decline: “St. Louis went from hosting 23 Fortune 500 headquarters in 1980 to just nine in 2015.  While deregulation hollowed out St. Louis’s economy, Missouri state lawmakers attacked the city’s school funding… A recent analysis by EdBuild found that St. Louis schools have a cost-adjusted revenue per student that is 9 percent below Missouri’s average. The district gets only 35 percent of its revenue from the state.”

Then came the school reformers: “While racism, economic upheaval, and underfunding took their toll, the next wave to hit St. Louis schools was arguably even more destructive.” Missouri charter school legislation passed in 1998; the first St. Louis charter opened in 2000; in 2003, Alvarez & Marsal brought their corporate belt-tightening and school closures; charter growth boomed between 2008-2013;  and today 30 percent of St. Louis students attend publicly funded, privately operated charter schools.  As in many places, expansion of charters has hurt the public schools, in the case of St. Louis, because of a provision of Missouri school finance law: “When the state allots money to charters…. the state reduces the host district’s aid by the same amount, so a district like St. Louis, which funds its schools mostly by local property taxes, loses that revenue as well as their state aid.”

The St. Louis Public Schools have recently made positive accomplishments despite these enormous challenges. In 2014, after the district raised its graduation rate to 72 percent, posted 95 percent attendance, raised test scores, and  got its finances in order with a surplus, the St. Louis Public Schools regained accreditation.  In 2012 St. Louis schools added Pre-K for all and staffed the program with certified early-childhood educators.  There is now some talk of restoring an elected school board.

Bryant concludes: “Today’s education theorists may regard Ittner’s vision of schools as special places for learning and as icons of community identity and pride as a relic. But the lesson from St. Louis is that the promise of a neighborhood school for every child,  that would uphold great education and serve as an anchor of community identity, did not fail us.  We failed it.”

Please read Jeff Bryant’s excellent history of public education in St. Louis.  As a depiction of the forces that have, during our lifetimes, undermined the vision for public education across America’s big cities, Bryant’s report is much more than a local story.

Rich Neighborhoods Seceding to Form Their Own Segregated Enclaves in New Trend

Racial segregation is a reality across the South and across America’s big cities.  In Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch quotes the data:  “80 percent of Latino students and 74 percent of black students attend majority-nonwhite schools. Forty-three percent of Latinos and 38 percent of black students attend intensely segregated schools, where fewer than 20 percent of students are white…  Half of the more than sixteen hundred schools in New York City are more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.  Half of the black students in Chicago and one-third of the black students in New York City attend apartheid schools.” (p. 292)

Segregation by income has also grown enormously since 1970.  Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon documents that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.

While the extent of segregation is deplorable 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it is well documented and not surprising.  Last week, however, Businessweek reported what it says may be becoming a new trend that will accelerate resegregation across school districts in the South that have been released from desegregation court orders.  According to Businessweek, “About half of the almost 500 districts under desegregation orders in 1990 were released by 2009…”  These districts have been awarded what is known as unitary status, by which the court releases them from oversight because they are said to have done all they were able to do to integrate their schools.

In several metropolitan areas, wealthy neighborhoods of large school districts are now simply seceding—pulling out to form their own small, exclusive, white school districts.  “In Alabama, which makes it relatively easy to create districts, two Birmingham suburbs have left the countywide system in the past two years.  After the majority-black Memphis schools merged last year with the majority-white county district, Tennessee’s Republican-dominated legislature lifted a decades-old ban on creating new systems, and six suburbs seceded, approving sales tax increases to pay for their schools.  Parent groups in Atlanta and Dallas are considering similar proposals.”

Businessweek‘s story last week is about parents in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana.  Parents supporting an effort called “Local Schools for Local Children,” including parents whose children have been attending private, segregated academies, want to take their tax dollars and pull out of the “42,000-student school district they share with mostly black neighborhoods nearby, where many families live in poverty.”  Whether the parents in Baton Rouge will be able to form their own exclusive school district remains in question because the Louisiana general assembly has not yet approved the enabling legislation.  Persistent parents are working to form a separate town in order to help their chances.

“‘It’s going to devastate us,’ says Tania Nyman, who has two elementary-age children in Baton Rouge magnet schools. ‘They’re not only going to take the richer white kids out of the district, they are going to take their money out of it.'”  According to a research report from a local university, per-pupil spending in Baton Rouge would drop from $9,635 to $8,870.  According to the Businessweek reporter, this would be “a painful cut in a district where 82 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free or subsidized school meals.  In the breakaway district, spending would rise to $11,686 per student.”

Public Schools: The Victims, Not the Cause, of Massive Inequality

A couple of years ago Paul Reville, then Massachusetts Education Secretary declared: “Some want to make the absurd argument that the reason low-income youngsters do poorly is that, mysteriously, all the incompetency in our education systems has coincidentally aggregated around low income students.  In this view, all we need to do is scrub the system of incompetency and all will be well…”

This is the idea, widely held, that it is all the teachers’ fault.  Extending this idea tells us that our problem is tenure or bad colleges of education training teachers badly.

Such ideas, foolish as they may sound to those of us who know something about inequality of educational opportunity, seem appealing because the problem can be fixed by merely firing our way into a better future.

We struggle to grasp and connect the web of issues that converge to drive inequality for children.  And if we can grasp the scope of the problem, it seems overwhelming.

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz helps us this morning in The Wrong Lesson from Detroit’s Bankruptcy.  Stiglitz has a wonderful way of translating the real life implications of economic policy.  And he understands quality public schools as part of the common good that strong economies are supposed to support.

Stiglitz grew up in Gary, Indiana, and this morning he writes about the role of manufacturing in mid-western cities:  “Cities like Detroit and Gary thrived on that industry, not just in terms of the wealth that it produced but also in terms of strong communities, healthy tax bases and good infrastructure.  From the stable foundation of Gary’s excellent public schools, influenced by the ideas of the progressive reformer John Dewey, I went on to Amherst College and then to M.I.T. for graduate school.”  He continues: “Today, fewer than 8 percent of American workers are employed in manufacturing, and many Rust Belt cities are skeletons.”

The rest of this morning’s article connects the dots, summarized as, “underinvestment in infrastructure and public services, geographic isolation that has marginalized poor and African-American communities in the Rust Belt, intergenerational poverty that has stymied equality of opportunity and the privileging of moneyed interests (like those of corporate executives and financial services companies) over those of workers.”

The rest of the article explains thoroughly how these factors intersect and what we must start to change.  “Detroit’s bankruptcy,” Stiglitz writes, “is a reminder of how divided our society has become and how much has to be done to heal the wounds.”

One of those things we’ll have to do is figure out a way to support and improve the public schools in places like Detroit instead of closing and privatizing  the schools that struggle and punishing the teachers and children based on high-stakes tests.  The children and their teachers are the victims, not the cause, of the structural inequality Stiglitz describes this morning.